MY MOM loved traditions. I so clearly remember her saying, “Once we do something twice, it’s tradition!” (Cue a female version of Tevye singing in Fiddler on the Roof.) One of her — and our — beloved traditions involved our favorite things: Family (including friends that are as close as family) and Food.
For as long as I can remember growing up, every Friday night we had pizza. But this was no ordinary pizza. Every Friday my mom would make pizza dough from scratch (a family recipe my grandma made sure each of her six kids could recreate), concoct her own pizza sauce that I know there is no recipe for and effortlessly throw a few pizzas together. (A blasphemous offer to call Domino’s or Papa John’s was just not done in our house.) Sometimes we’d all eat together or my brother and I would beg to spread a blanket on the living room floor so we could eat while we watched TV — a BIG treat for us.
As we grew up, the Pizza Night tradition evolved. Friends had a standing invitation for Friday pizza and knew that they could show up at the Browns anytime to join the fun. When I was in high school, my mom and her friend, Katy, would kick-off Pizza Night every Friday with a glass of wine an hour or so before the crowd descended upon us. They would chat and catch up but after an hour, they got to work. Wine glasses were retrieved, pizza toppings were chopped, dough was rolled out all with the radio playing in the background. Sure enough, like clockwork, friends started walking in — you were a newcomer if you rang the doorbell.
My mom was like the conductor to the evening orchestral event. She’d roll out the dough and my dad would top the pizza. If you proclaimed how much you just luhhhVED a particular pizza, you got your favorite pizza named after you. Just like your favorite, local eatery featuring The Uncle Sammy sandwich or The Crazy Cousin Bill Burger we had The Adam (Sweet Baby Ray’s Barbeque Chicken Pizza), The Emily (Hawiian Pizza), The Connor (Taco Pizza with Fritos) among others.
Sometimes (actually, just once) we even had competitions to see what new pizza we could add to the rotation.(Yes, that is peanut butter and Nutella on the Left.)
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I first came home to an empty house a few weeks after my mom’s funeral… on a Friday. What’s more, my dad was out of town. However, members of the regular Friday gang assured me if I could open up the house, they could make Pizza Night happen. And how beautiful and poetic it was.
One by one, folks pranced in with the necessaries. I felt like George Bailey, as friends stepped up to help. A once empty counter, now overflowed with vegetables and toppings, pizza dough, sauce, and drinks. At once, we all labored over cutting boards and rolling pins, with the radio playing in the background. Everyone had a job. It’s funny how it takes so many people to fill the void of one. While my mom usually orchestrated on her own, it now took several sets of inspecting eyes to determine if a pizza was done. (My mom never set a timer so we were never really sure how long each pizza needed to bake.) We cheered for each other and encouraged. Usually my Dad cut the pizzas but without him there, it was decided that pizza cutting was a genetic gift so I was the next best thing.
A few weeks ago I was home again in time for Pizza Night and I saw such a bigger story being told. Pretty easily and understandably, Pizza Night could have ended last August. But instead, the same friends keep showing up to let the tradition carry on. One friend is always responsible for bringing pizza dough. Another friend is responsible for rolling the dough. Other friends always bring choice toppings, while others bring dessert or drinks. We feel the absence of one but each take on the burden and joy of carrying on the hospitality she demonstrated to us all so well.
Without a doubt, I know my mom would love to know that Pizza Night carries on. While it’s not as effortless as before — although, my dad is quite a pro now — we continue. We use store bought dough now. It takes five sets of eyes to deem a pizza done. We coach each other and cheer as each pizza feels like such an accomplishment.
Our improvisation shows tells of a grander lesson. We can adapt. We can grow out of sadness. Life is heart-breaking at times but steadily continues on. Pizza is good but best shared with many, many friends.